The Good Shepherd A fictionalized look at the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, this is an unlikely candidate to enjoy a wide release during Christmas week. It’s methodical in its style and intelligent in its execution, which in some circles will translate as dull, slow-moving and impenetrable -- hardly words anyone wants to hear during the hustle and bustle of the cheery Yuletide season. Yet patient viewers will find much to appreciate in this chilly yet absorbing drama, which takes the cherished ideal of patriotism and turns it on its head. On the heels of The Departed, Matt Damon delivers another bold performance that seeks no audience empathy -- here, he’s cast as Edward Wilson, whose role as one of the founders of the CIA finds him over the course of several decades having to contend with all manner of Cold War shenanigans, including the presence of a mole within his own agency. Directed with a fine attention to detail by Robert De Niro (who also appears in a key supporting role), The Good Shepherd repeatedly runs the risk of losing viewers with its flashback-laden structure drafted by scripter Eric Roth. But the strength of the film rests in its clear-eyed vision of Edward Wilson, whose fierce devotion to his country in turn strips him of his humanity and reduces him to a suspicious and paranoid cypher, an American too busy fighting unseen enemies to enjoy the freedoms and privileges that his nation provides for him.
The Pursuit of Happyness Anyone who’s seen the trailer knows that the movie has only two things on its mind: 1) Win Will Smith an Oscar and 2) drive up Kleenex profits by unleashing a flood of sob-worthy moments. Whether it succeeds in achieving either goal remains to be seen, but 1) Will Smith does indeed turn in a strong performance (though hardly the year’s best) and 2) the picture is skilled enough to generate some genuine pathos to go along with the more calculated melodramatics. This is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a failed salesman in the 1980s who tries to raise his son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) even as he descends further into poverty. Chris can’t turn around without something bad happening to him -- it’s not enough that he’s struck by a car; he has to then lose one of his shoes in the accident and limp to work with one foot clothed only in a sock. How much of this is factual is unclear -- it’s anybody’s guess whether screenwriter Steven Conrad is laying it on this thick for audience members or whether God had indeed laid it on this thick for the real Chris Gardner -- but the moving and sincere work by Will and his real-life son Jaden (a confidant and relaxed actor) cuts through all pretensions (even the instant happy ending) and allows The Pursuit of Happyness to earn at least some of its tears.
Charlotte’s Web This is the new live-action treatment of E.B. White’s beloved children’s book, but there’s already been a dazzling screen version of this tale. No, I don’t mean the 1973 Hanna-Barbera animated take, best remembered today for Paul Lynde’s appropriately snarky work as Templeton the rat. Instead, I refer to the 1995 feature Babe. OK, so it wasn’t based on White’s book, but with its story centering around a cute little pig learning about farm life, it shares the same sense of magic and wonderment: As with the book Charlotte’s Web, the movie Babe convinced us that we were witnessing a classic come to life right before our very eyes. This new screen version of Charlotte’s Web is mostly faithful to its source material (though some expected -- and tiresome -- flatulence gags have been added), but because Gary Winick’s direction rarely rises above the level of competent, and because Babe has already perfected the talking-animal feat via its Oscar-winning effects, the end result is pleasant but not much more than that. As the voice of Charlotte, the spider who befriends Wilbur the pig and plots to save him from the slaughterhouse, Julia Roberts is suitably soothing, while Steve Buscemi provides the proper measure of ego and arrogance as Templeton. The supporting voice actors, including Oprah Winfrey as a goose and horse whisperer Robert Redford as a horse, tend to get lost in the occasional frenzy of the tale, which on screen works better in the more mature passages (e.g. Charlotte explaining the cycle of life to Wilbur) than those focusing on slapdash antics.
We Are Marshall In most respects, We Are Marshall traffics in the same kind of predictable underdog uplift championed in The Rookie, Miracle and oh-so-many-others. But real life provided a tragic twist, and that’s what makes the otherwise rote We Are Marshall a cut above the norm. Set in 1970, the picture centers on what transpires in a sports-crazed town in West Virginia after nearly all the members of the Marshall University football team (as well as several coaches and fans) are killed in a place crash. After much hemming and hawing while trying to figure out the right thing to do, it’s decided that the sports program will be resurrected from the ashes as a way of honoring the fallen players. Cue the entrance of Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughney), an outsider who arrives in town to serve as the new squad’s head coach -- and also to help community members move on with their own lives. Except for Anthony Mackie as the team captain, the actors portraying the players are a nondescript lot, meaning the emphasis is shifted to the adult characters. And it’s these seasoned actors (among them David Strathairn and Ian McShane) who best punch across the heavy burden that threatens to crush the spirit of this town. We Are Marshall is never as emotionally draining as this material requires, but it gives it the old college try and comes close to succeeding.
Rocky Balboa Critics generally haven’t been kind to Sylvester Stallone, but even the crustiest of reviewers might feel a protective twinge when faced with the spectacle that is Rocky Balboa. Stallone’s career has been over for years, yet here’s the big lug, now 60, returning to the role that made him a star three decades ago. That there’s now a sixth Rocky movie, coming 16 years after Rocky V, is perhaps the ultimate in both money-grubbing and star groveling, yet because Stallone so obviously loves this great character he created, it’s hard to get worked up in a fury of righteous indignation. My only regret is that Rocky Balboa isn’t a better film. It has some nice touches, particularly in the way it draws upon memories of previous installments, and Stallone is never more human as an actor than when he’s essaying this role. But the movie spends too much time in idle and not enough in overdrive, and what should be the central storyline -- Rocky comes out of retirement to fight an undefeated champion (Antonio Tarver) half his age -- only takes shape once the picture’s nearly over.
Night At the Museum This film plays with fire by employing the services of three overexposed actors -- Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Robin Williams (only Will Ferrell is missing) -- and potentially allowing them to run rampant through an overstuffed fantasy yarn. Mercifully, though, Stiller is muted, Williams is similarly restrained, and Wilson... well, Wilson is still pretty annoying (two out of three ain’t bad). Stiller plays Larry Daley, the new night watchman at a museum where the exhibits come to life after the venue closes for the day. The benevolent Teddy Roosevelt (Williams) is helpful to have around, but Larry has his hands full evading Attila the Hun, dealing with a mischievous monkey, and settling squabbles between a miniature cowboy (Wilson) and an equally diminutive Roman commander (Steve Coogan). A clever premise (adapted from a children’s book) is hampered by lackluster scripting and directing, though Ricky Gervais provides some choice comic moments as the supercilious museum head. If nothing else, this should command the attention of kids who have grown tired of having their pictures taken with Santa.
Eragon This draggy dragon yarn bored me silly, but I imagine it might appeal to folks who have never before seen a fantasy flick. The movie is based on the wildly popular book written by Christopher Paolini when he was a mere lad of 15. It was a huge success among most, though not all, teen readers (my 15-year-old daughter, herself weaned on fantasy, thought it was tripe), and if the movie is faithful to its source material, then the lawsuit-happy George Lucas corporation has grounds to sue for plagiarism. Let’s see, a naive farmboy decides to take on an evil empire (more so after his harmless uncle is murdered by soldiers seeking the boy) with the help of a wisdom-spouting mentor and a devil-may-care maverick. Oh, and he also has to rescue a beautiful princess from the clutches of an evil ruler and his supernaturally endowed enforcer. The key difference is that instead of a lightsaber, the lad comes equipped with his very own dragon -- and there’s no Death Star in sight, just a deadly star in the form of lead Ed Speleers. As Eragon Skywalker, newcomer Speleers is about as charismatic as a comatose possum, and even capable actors like Jeremy Irons (as Brom Kenobi), Djimon Hounsou (as Ajihad Calrissian) and Robert Carlyle (as Darth Durza, and looking eerily like Martin Short in the Merlin miniseries) are soundly defeated by the dreadful dialogue and indifferent pacing.
Apocalypto Flush from making gazillions from The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson used his clout to create a film that under any other circumstances would have been laughed right out of the studio boardroom: a lengthy, subtitled period epic about the Mayan civilization. For a while, it does offer something fresh. Gibson, working from a script he co-wrote with Farhad Safinia, takes us back in time to the waning period of the Mayan civilization, in a small village in which the peaceful inhabitants spend their time hunting for food, absorbing advice from their elders, and playing practical jokes on one another. Chief among the pranksters is Jaguar Paw (an impressive debut by Native American artist and actor Rudy Youngblood), the proud son of one of the village leaders, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead). The serenity of the village is forever shattered on the morning that a far more bloodthirsty band of Mayan warriors -- ones aligned with the ruling class residing in an actual city -- descend upon the jungle dwellers, raping the women, abandoning the children, and dragging the men back to their city to be served up as either slaves or human sacrifices. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son (Carlos Emilio Baez) before being captured himself, and he vows to return to them no matter what it takes. That will take some doing, though, considering he’s chosen to function as the next sacrifice to appease the angry gods. Considering that the Mayan civilization is justly celebrated for its innovations and complexities, it’s puzzling how simplistic these cultural representatives prove to be. Surely, Gibson will allow the story to expand and deepen during the second half? Don’t count on it. It turns out that Gibson isn’t interested in educating either us or himself; instead, Apocalypto degenerates into a straightforward action flick. Worse, the switch to pure action also allows Gibson to indulge in his by-now predictable sadism. Anyone who’s seen Braveheart or The Passion of the Christ (to say nothing of starring vehicles like Payback and The Patriot) senses that nothing titillates the filmmaker as much as pain and destruction, and Apocalypto soon turns into an orgy of unrelenting bloodlust. He can’t just show a jaguar killing a man; he has to show the victim’s face being stretched and ripped off by the savage creature. He can’t simply have another character get shot from behind by an arrow; he has to show said projectile continuing its path through the fellow’s open mouth. Oddly, the picture’s excess of brutality isn’t shocking as much as it’s laughable; because it’s so pronounced and protracted, it ultimately feels no more absurd than the sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a knight tries to keep fighting after his limbs have all been hacked off. If the Python boys ever try to mount a comeback, it’d be advisable to hire Mel Gibson as their “technical consultant” -- he’s definitely cinema’s reigning gore-to guy.
The Holiday The best bet for spreading cheer across multiplexes this holiday season, The Holiday is a finely polished piece of romantic cinema, with a generosity of spirit so all-encompassing that it’s easy to forgive its occasional excesses. Writer-director Nancy Meyers, whose previous hit was the similarly sharp Something’s Gotta Give, clearly writes from a privileged perch: Her characters tend to be perversely rich, impeccably groomed and fabulously good-looking. Yet because she has the ability to imbue these high-and-mighty figures with flaws and doubts and in the process make them recognizably human, it’s always easy to warm up to her players. Workaholic Amanda (Cameron Diaz), who cuts movie trailers for a living in LA, and mopey Iris (Kate Winslet), who writes for a London newspaper and lives out in the countryside, are both unlucky in love and seeking to get away from the heartbreak of their daily lives. Simultaneously coming across a “home exchange” website, both women realize that they’d be happiest spending the Christmas season far from their troubles. Therefore, Amanda heads to Iris’ quaint English cottage while Iris ends up at Amanda’s luxurious Hollywood mansion. Initially, men are the farthest commodities from both women’s minds, but a pair of guys do enter the scene. For Amanda, that means Iris’ brother Graham (Jude Law), who initially appears to be a womanizer looking for an easy score. And for Iris, it means Miles (Jack Black), a film composer blessed with a quick wit but burdened with a beautiful but unappreciative girlfriend (Shannyn Sossamon). How could the tale of perfect, pretty people Diaz and Law possibly compete with the plot strand involving the far more quirky Winslet and Black? Fortunately, both sides of the celluloid coin are equally entertaining. Diaz displays her comic chops as a frosty career woman who thaws under the gaze of a good man, while Law, never more charming, provides his character with an unexpected puppy-dog demeanor that softens those eyes that have been used to predatory effect in past titles like Closer and Alfie. Winslet, meanwhile, continues to shine no matter what the role -- though in both this and the recent Little Children, she’s been cast as the frumpier of the two leading ladies (in Children, it’s Jennifer Connelly playing the other woman), which is almost risible given her luminescent beauty. As for Black, he was an interesting choice to play the vulnerable music composer, and he contributes some of the film’s funniest moments.
Blood Diamond Hollywood’s latest progressive cause seems to be protesting the crimes against humanity being perpetually carried out on the African continent, which is fine when the films are so gripping that one would like to believe they can be used as agents of change (see The Constant Gardener and Hotel Rwanda). But like Catch a Fire, the recent apartheid drama starring Derek Luke and Tim Robbins, Blood Diamond comes across as a public service announcement more than a motion picture experience. The message of Blood Diamond (repeated during the end credits) is that consumers should take care not to buy “conflict diamonds,” baubles obtained by mercenaries using slave labor, then smuggled out of war torn countries. Since the movie establishes early on that these “conflict diamonds” are mixed in with legitimate diamonds at an early stage in the marketing process, it’s never made clear how exactly consumers are supposed to avoid said jewels (buy roses instead?). At any rate, the movie’s lofty intentions are hamstrung by having to coexist uneasily with a trio of stock characters. Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio in a strong performance, even if his South African accent doesn’t convince for one second) is a devil-may-care opportunist who belatedly discovers he has a heart of gold as large as the diamond he spends the entire movie seeking. Solomon Vandy (magnetic Djimon Hounsou, once again typecast as the noble and suffering black man whose fate seems controlled by the whites surrounding him) is a fisherman brutalized and forced into mining the diamond fields. And Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, working overtime to add sparks to a thin character) is an American journalist who sounds like an Information Please almanac every time she opens her mouth. Director Edward Zwick and his team are presumably sincere in wanting to shed some light on a tragic real-world situation, but the clumsy Blood Diamond simply can’t cut it.
Deck The Halls Christmas may bring out the best in most people, but what is it about the holiday that brings out the worst in Hollywood filmmakers? And now here comes Deck the Halls, yet another holiday hack job that champions cynicism and mean-spiritedness before tacking on a phony redemptive ending meant to fool us into believing that we actually sat through something of value. Its gags are all on the order of having obnoxious car salesman Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) climbing buck-naked into a sleeping bag with frostbitten neighbor Steve Finch (Matthew Broderick) in an effort to warm him up (after all, nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a smattering of gay panic, right?), or the two men leering and hooting at teenage girls who turn out to be their own daughters (after all, nothing says “Merry Christmas” like allusions to incest, right?). The imbecilic plot concerns Steve’s disgust at Buddy’s desire to put enough Christmas lights on his house so it can be seen from outer space. Before it’s all done, Steve will find himself trapped on a runaway sled, spit upon by an angry camel, and shunned by his Instant Sitcom-Ready Family (i.e. just add laugh track). But why waste time describing this?
Deja Vu The latest from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott is movie porn for the electronic media set, a techno-thriller deeply in love with its own hardware. Set in New Orleans, the film opens with an explosion aboard a ferry that kills over 500 people. Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), an ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) agent, is summoned to lead the investigation, and he quickly realizes that the key to the mystery rests with the beautiful – and deceased – Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), whose charred body was found in the same vicinity as those of the ferry victims.Carlin’s footwork can only take him so far; to have any chance of catching the Timothy McVeigh-styled terrorist (Jim Caviezel), he must bunker down with Andrew Pryzwarra (a wasted Val Kilmer), an FBI agent who introduces Carlin to nifty new gadgets that can allow the government to not only use satellite technology to spy on citizens’ houses but also to make its way inside those houses, getting close enough to watch them take showers, make phone calls and feed the cats. For some convoluted reason, this available satellite footage is always running four days behind, and it’s impossible to speed it up, slow it down or stop it for closer inspection. But not to worry: Perhaps sensing that they’re quickly writing themselves into a corner, scripters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio also invent a pair of goggles that allow the present-day Carlin to engage in a car chase with the four-days-ago terrorist. And when that development runs out of juice, the pair decide that the spyware also doubles as a time machine, just the ticket so that Carlin can go back in time to save Claire (his first priority) and the other 500 victims (a distant second). Although the decision to stage a massive disaster in the heart of Katrina Country will strike many as an unfortunate lapse in judgment, it’s the early scenes in Déjà Vu that prove to be the most compelling, as Denzel’s Doug Carlin uses his wits to stockpile various clues that will lead him in the right direction.
Casino Royale After a typically exciting pre-credits sequence, Casino Royale -- like almost all James Bond films before it -- employs the tried-and-true image guaranteed to raise the pulses of Bond fans all across the globe. The dapper agent strolls into the frame, whirls around and fires directly at the circular camera eye while the classic 007 theme plays on the soundtrack. Only... Where’s the music? Monty Norman’s familiar riff does show up during the end credits, but it’s conspicuously missing from the beginning. In most other respects, Casino Royale ranks among the best Bond films produced over the past 44 years. It easily swats aside the Pierce Brosnan Bond flicks, while new star Daniel Craig vies with Timothy Dalton for second place as the screen’s best 007 (it’s doubtful Sean Connery will ever relinquish the gold). Basically, this new film wipes away the previous 20 installments by going back to when James Bond was first promoted by M (Judi Dench, the only holdover from the Brosnan years) to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill. Bond’s first mission of import is to enter a poker tournament being held in Montenegro’s Casino Royale, where he’s to prevent Eurotrash villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a personal financier of the world’s terrorist organizations, from emerging victorious and collecting the sizable pot. Aiding him in his assignment is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a treasury agent who proves to be Bond’s match in the verbal sparring department. The character of Vesper Lynd -- one of the sharpest women in the Bond oeuvre -- is just one of the many pleasing touches on view in this slam-bang chapter. Casino Royale is so successful in its determination to jump-start the series by any means necessary that it tampers with winning formulas left and right. When a bartender asks Bond if he prefers his martini shaken or stirred, the surly agent snaps back, “Do I really look like I give a damn?” Blasphemy? Perhaps. But also bloody invigorating.
Happy Feet For at least half of its running time, Happy Feet is the usual crapola animated feature, this one about a penguin (voiced by Elijah Wood) whose tap-dancing prowess freaks out his fellow flightless fowl. It features saccharine characters, soulless CGI imagery, lazy stereotypes that border on racism, and way too much Robin Williams (playing not one, not two, but three characters). But a strange and wonderful thing happens deep into the film. It dispenses with the fun and games and becomes a sober reflection on the harm that humans are causing to the environment and to our ice-capped friends in particular. The movie morphs into one of the coolest Twilight Zone episodes never made, and for a brief, glorious second, I thought it was going to end at the most opportune moment, delivering its themes with all the force of a sledgehammer on an egg shell. But no. The film recovers from its momentary brilliance and soon is back on its preordained path to a happy ending.
Nativity Story There’s no small irony in the fact that 16-year-old Australian actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays the Virgin Mary in the new Biblical drama The Nativity Story, has recently revealed that she herself is pregnant – an unexpected development that should lead to plenty of headaches for New Line Cinema’s PR department. That tidbit will at least raise eyebrows; The Nativity Story, on the other hand, fails to even raise a pulse. That’s a shame, because after The Passion of the Christ, the time is right for a tasteful and respectful Biblical tale that inspires awe and amazement instead of rage and revulsion. Unfortunately, this new film errs in the direction of too much propriety. Director Catherine Hardwicke, whose Thirteen was a wild and wicked look at out-of-control LA teens, seems fearful of adding any semblance of passion to this interpretation, resulting in a stillborn drama that inspires yawns more than anything else. Viewers in the mood for some celluloid religion this holiday season would do best to just stay home and rent the exceptional 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth instead. Castle-Hughes, whose work in the lyrical Whale Rider earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination a few years ago, is curiously flat as Mary; the three wise men, meanwhile, are asked to generate so many nyuks during the film that they end up coming across as the Three Stooges.